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New York City Mayoral Race Turns Squirrelly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are this celebrity-crazed city’s newest odd couple--one, the real-life inspiration for the jobless slacker on TV’s “Seinfeld” and the other the infamous subway vigilante turned savior for injured squirrels.

But rather than sharing a bachelor pad, Kenny Kramer and Bernard H. Goetz have seized onto the same unlikely dream that has locals both laughing out loud and launching an unceremonious Bronx cheer.

They’re running for mayor of New York.

From the Staten Island pier to Harlem and Manhattan’s lower east side, they’re waging their separate campaigns, seeking to pick up the political torch of outgoing Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

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And in a ho-hum race featuring four bland career Democrats and media tycoon Michael Bloomberg, these two off-the-wall aspirants seem blessed with more instant name recognition than the other candidates combined.

On Tuesday, the deadline for filing the 7,500 voter signatures needed to qualify for the autumn ballot, Libertarian Party candidate Kramer staged a rally on the steps of City Hall. His followers then marched down the Canyon of Heroes, the site of New York’s ticker-tape parades, to register Kramer’s 14,000 signatures with the city’s Board of Elections.

The 57-year-old stand-up comic who inspired Cosmo Kramer--the sitcom lunatic with the light-socket hair who burst through the door of Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment each week--says the title “New York Mayor Kenny Kramer” has a nice ring to it.

“Voters are tired of the same old politicians with their bad toupees and ridiculous comb-over hairdos,” Kramer said, with a flick of his shoulder-length gray hair. “If a wrestler can become Minnesota governor, why can’t I become mayor of New York?”

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The even-darker-horse Goetz was more low-key Tuesday, preferring to hole up in his Greenwich Village apartment with his pet squirrels.

The 53-year-old former nuclear engineer gained nationwide notoriety when he shot and wounded four black teens on a crowded subway who had demanded $5 from him. “I have $5 for each of you,” he said calmly before emptying his gun, telling one downed teenager: “You don’t look so bad. Here’s another.” Acquitted of attempted first-degree murder, he served eight months in jail for possessing a deadly weapon.

Board of Elections spokeswoman Naomi Bernstein said Goetz is a legal candidate since he served his jail time for his felony: “Once you do your time, you’re OK. We have lots of convicted felons working for the city.”

Goetz has his own zingers for those who question his candidacy: “I tell people there are 10 doofuses running for mayor, and I want my name added to the list.”

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In a city famous for misguided mayoral campaigns--including shoot-from-the-hip candidates from Norman Mailer to porn star Robin Byrd--pollsters say these two are the most quixotic wannabes yet.

“You want to know what their chances are? None. Zip. Zilch. Zero,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun. They might even have something sensible to say.”

Both candidates’ platforms are simple. Kramer, a former spokesman for a marijuana legalization group, wants to see less government and even less police emphasis on pot offenses.

Kramer, who said he once smoked enough pot to make a beanbag chair out of marijuana seeds in only three months, insists he can win easily if pot smokers will vote for him. “The problem will be getting them to remember to go vote,” he quips.

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Goetz, who has said that he quit smoking marijuana after “a family tragedy” in January--the death of a pet squirrel--also calls for drug tolerance and a pro-gun agenda. And he supports a vegetarian menu at city schools, jails and mental hospitals.

He says he would never have been attacked on the subway if he had been a vegetarian then. “Vegetarians have better karma,” Goetz explains.

Saying he no longer carries a gun, Goetz is so pleased with Giuliani’s war on crime that he says he would keep the mayor’s entire staff--and even Giuliani himself as deputy mayor.

But he gives Giuliani only so much credit for making New York streets safer. “AIDS has helped,” he says. “The epidemic has been a tremendous help in getting rid of the [worst] elements of society.”

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Such comments have angered many residents, who wonder whether Goetz can persuade anyone to vote for him.

“He has no voter base out there whatsoever,” said Raymond B. Harding, head of the New York State Liberal Party. “His name and his vigilante conduct had a certain reverberation years ago. But conditions have changed 180 degrees. Bernard Goetz is now a name from the past.”

Goetz, who would not say whether he has enough signatures to make the ballot, acknowledges a chilly reception in the black community. “I haven’t done much campaigning in the projects. People there identify more with the kids I shot than they do with me.”

Kramer is relying on his renown as “the real Kramer” and the fact that his reality tour of “Seinfeld” landmarks around New York still packs buses.

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Like his television character, played by Michael Richards, Kramer is part gadfly, part huckster, a friendly con man who once sold glow-in-the-dark disco jewelry, managed a rock band and did voice-overs for X-rated CD-ROMs.

He insists that his campaign will feature a walk-in closet. “There are no skeletons in my attic. I admit to everything. The drugs, the women. Even to stuff I didn’t do.”

For credibility, Kramer recently hired Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura’s political advisor. For now, however, he still wages his campaign from the Hell’s Kitchen apartment where he met and formed a lifelong friendship with “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David.

Despite his popularity, Kramer acknowledges that fund-raising has been a bit of a problem. “We’ve raised seven figures. The problem is with the decimal point.”

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On Tuesday, a dozen fans waved “Kramer for mayor” signs outside City Hall as the candidate stared wild-eyed into the TV cameras: “For all you New Yorkers who may be seeing me for the first time, get used to it.”

David Miller saw the group and called out: “Hey, it’s Kramer!” Then, noticing the campaign signs, he added: “We could do worse.”

Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Kramer walked into traffic with a placard, stopping a double-decker bus. “Remember, vote for Kenny,” he shouted. And when he got no response: “This an English-speaking tour bus?”

While neither has been invited to any major debates, Kramer and Goetz faced off at a Staten Island event for third-party candidates. “I asked Bernie where he stood on the 2nd Amendment and he started with this long answer,” recalled Kramer. “And I said, ‘Bernie, it was a joke! A gun joke! We’re all having fun here.’ ”

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If he doesn’t make the ballot, Goetz will return to his quiet life with his squirrels. “They play with me every morning. They’re affectionate. They hug you. They’ve got a lot of heart.”

And while he admits he’s a longshot, Kramer says he’s still searching for a few disenfranchised dopers. “I say, ‘Elect Kramer and really stick it to ‘em.’ I’ve spent my whole life as a slacker. I’m well rested and ready to go.”


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